Facebook: The Privatization of our Privates and Life in the Company Town

Do people have any grounds to complain about the latest changes to the rules of publicness of various elements of a Facebook profile? Or is the only legitimate response “love-it or leave-it?”

Lately, Facebook has been pushing a dual strategy of “public-or-nothing” with some profile elements and “public-by-default and good-luck-figuring-out-the-settings” with others.  Some influential industry analysts and Facebook’s own publicity officer have taken a “nobody is twisting your arm to use Facebook; leave if you don’t like it” approach.

The correct analogy to the current situation would be if tenants had no rights to privacy in their homes because they happen to be renting the walls and doors. This week, you are allowed to close the door but, oops, we changed the terms-of-service.

At face value, it seems like a fair point. Nobody is forcing anyone to use Facebook or any other online social network service. At most, it seems, we have a right to complain about obscure terms-of-service and demand for better language and better heads-up of changes. At most, the strongest demand that is seen as legitimate seems to be that we should be allowed to opt-in.

I argue that this is too limited a view. We have to stop looking at the “Facebook – lone individual” transaction and look at what’s going on at the systemic level. This isn’t just about Facebook, either. This is about the fact that increasing portions of our sociality are now conducted in privately-owned spaces. The implications of this are still playing out.

The latest developments appear to be the next stage to the historical trend of privatization of our publics. Examples of those include the dominance of corporate-owned media over the civic public sphere, outsourcing of many government functions to less-accountable contractors including some aspects of war, increasing reduction of our public spaces to malls and privately-owned town-squares, such as downtown Silver Spring, MD where first-amendment does not apply, etc.

What is currently happening is the privatization of our privates, not just our publics. And this is not a mere question of legality but a lack of legal protections being carried over to a new medium. In some sense, this parallels the lack of carrying of wiretap protections on the phone to the Internet – the social relations did not change but the medium changed allowing for a gap in legal protections.

The correct analogy to the current situation would be if tenants had no rights to privacy in their homes because they happen to be renting the walls and doors. This week, you are allowed to close the door but, oops, we changed the terms-of-service. No more closed doors! You had locks last week but we don’t allow them as of this week. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

Further, it is as if all the housing in the major city with the jobs was owned by a single company so the choice was either leave that town or surrender control over your private life. “Don’t like it, leave!” the bosses of the company town (and other people in positions of privilege would say.) And shake their heads over the inability of people to read the terms-of-service on their ever-changing lease. The value of Facebook is that people have created their networks through its infrastructure, and they have done so with the understanding that the network would be under their control because that is what Facebook said initially. Instead, all of a sudden, they’ve found themselves in a company town. This cannot be a viable strategy, ethically or commercially.

There is a reason the law recognizes the right of the tenant to privacy within her home regardless of ownership. People are not businesses, sociality is not a mere transaction, and our social interactions are more than opportunities for monetization.

There are four key points to the infrastructure of sociality:

1- Being social is not optional. It is a core human need and a requirement for being a part of society. It is legitimate to argue that the infrastructure of sociality cannot be just about priorities of businesses and intricacies of ownership.

2- Every society has “commons” – shared infrastructure that makes it possible for the society as a whole to function. Internet is now a part of that commons in general and many social applications such as Facebook are part of the “social commons.” That is why Facebook, the corporation, is so valuable and people who own it are very rich. It would not be wise of them to ignore that fact.

3- These commons function to the degree that they do because they are shared. You cannot merely withdraw because the value is in the network. Thus, claims of ownership of the network cause tension because of the dual-nature of this network: it is created by the people and consists of the people while the infrastructure is privately controlled. Currently, the infrastructure-owners want to claim primary control. That is the tension we are witnessing.

4- The “transaction between parties” approach is not illuminating because first, the transaction is not between equals. Power has to enter into this analysis. Further, people do have a claim to the network because they created it. Facebook wants all the control because it owns the infrastructure.

Historically, the private sphere tended to be intimate/hidden/personal while the public sphere was civic/visible/impersonal. The internet has shuffled those distinctions quite radically in ways that are too long to explore in one already-too-long blog post. Our cultural toolkit, the ways we know how to act, regulate, maintain and explore those boundaries, has not caught up to the new reality. Sociologists talk about primary (intimate, core, face-to-face) and secondary (larger groups) social relations. While the second may involve a larger audience, they are both still delimited. Facebook is forcing elements of that sociality to be effectively globally-public.

As a society, we understand that ownership of infrastructure does not constitute a blank check to publicize and monetize private interactions. We should carry over that principle to new technologies because what matters is our social contract, not whether the interaction now takes place over silicon and wire instead of through sound and air.

Should shopping malls have the right to surreptitiously record every word you say to the person you are with and sell it to whomever? Do they have a right to put cameras in the lavatories? Do tenants have a right to privacy? If I am on a bus, or a train, or business, or anywhere that I do not own, have I forfeited all rights and expectations of control over my words and interactions? Indeed, law recognizes that the fundamental dignity of the person means that we do not just surrender those rights in privately-owned spaces. Facebook should recognize and honor those principles.

Can Facebook still make money? Sure. I believe there are many ways that Facebook could monetize the work that its 400 millions have put into its system without trampling over the basic social contract.

Ultimately, I think they are the biggest threat to themselves because affordances of the Internet do mean that people could self-organize and take the network elsewhere with a lot more ease than Facebook seems to think. I suspect Facebook is betting that people have too much invested in their profiles. It may well be true at the moment but Facebook would be wise, commercially and ethically, to keep in mind the ease with which cascades can self-organize in networks.

17 thoughts on “Facebook: The Privatization of our Privates and Life in the Company Town

  1. nathanjurgenson

    great post!

    i see this as a battle between, on the one hand, our privacy concerns being trampled over by facebook, and, on the other, the cultural norm of sharing more and more with more people.

    at each step we complain when this sharing is forced upon us, but we quickly forget and ultimately come to enjoy increasing publicity -even with all the pitfalls it entails.

    (mass exhibitionism online is actually a great case study on how social groups move in directions and create norms [sui generis] without the individual members necessarily wanting to do so – thanks, durkheim).

    also, and unrelated, what about those four democratic US senators who are speaking out about Facebook privacy? is that a promising lead regarding the points made in this post? ~nathan

  2. Meghan Wilker

    Interesting argument, but isn’t the key difference between tenants and Facebook users the payment of rent? I think the love-it-or leave it argument comes from the logic that nothing is ever free. Facebook spent their money building a kingdom, everyone gets to use it for free, and the king gets to make the rules.

    I don’t think what Facebook is doing is a smart idea, but I do understand the “if you don’t like it, hit the road” argument. If this was a service we were all paying for, we’d probably have some more leverage as consumers.

    I do think the issue of privatized commons is interesting and disturbing. But, whose responsibility is it to provide these commons? Are we willing to chip in for their creation and maintenance (both online and IRL) in exchange for better privacy and security?

    1. Sedate Me

      Really good point about a “pay-for service”. I’d love to see the rise of an internet business model that doesn’t depend on spying on you and/or ramming ads down your throat, both of which will only get more aggressive over time.

      Not that I think you’re promoting it, but the “if you don’t like it, leave” argument falls apart on a few fronts.

      1) Facebook didn’t build the kingdom, the US military did. Facebook just put up a tent there and started charging admission. (aka your privacy)

      2) There’s no “informed consent”. You see all the Pros and none of the Cons. You see the positives of this “great” service every day, but what is actually done with your “data” happens completely out of sight. Out of sight, out of mind. So members’ opinions are manipulated based upon the lack of proper information and context.

      3) Not being on Facebook is slowly becoming less of an option. With such dominance comes conformity to it. Like receiving e-mails with Microsoft Word attachments forced many Word Perfect users to give in, millions now communicate ONLY via Facebook. Zuckerberg’s goal is to monopolize the on-line activity of all Facebook users until there’s no choice but to get an account yourself and have him open a profile on you.

      Other examples of subtle monopolistic pressure include:
      -Promotional contests that you can only enter via Facebook.
      -My favourite TV show and its cast have NO Internet presence outside of Facebook.
      -Independent websites are starting to REQUIRE you log on with Facebook or Twitter before posting comments.

      4) Facebook’s Terms & Conditions in 2010 reserved the “right” to compile other Facebook users’ references to you & information gathered on you from EXTERNAL media sources (newspapers, blogs, etc) and add them to the file they keep on you. And, even after you leave Facebook, they hold onto your data like you took their virginity and suddenly had to move across the country. Breaking up is hard to do, especially with stalkers who feel they have rights over you.

  3. Ayala Rahav

    I agree with every word you wrote. The web is our digital habitat, and increasingly so. It is populated by people from all generations and cultures and diversified privacy choices come with that.
    My views of the misconceptions of Facebook regarding privacy are based on an attitude that puts the individual at the center, puts active control on privacy and sharing in users’ hands and calls for a paradigm shift, transparent, ethical relations with providers who should undrstand the essence of real service and respect their customers – otherwie they will eventually bring upon themselves their end because people won’t tolerate such abuse and worthy alternatives will arise.

  4. Mark Gibbens

    I agree that nothing is free, Meghan, but there is a complexity with social networking websites/apps. The architects spent money on building the infrastructure, but the users spent time creating the relationships and content. As the value of the network is as much to do with the content and other relationships as it is to do with the infrastructure, the situation is not so clear-cut.

    1. Sedate Me

      Social networking sites deliberately position you as the centre of the universe, a universe where you surround yourself with your “friends”, your “likes”, etc. It pretends that it’s YOUR virtual property when the reality is the opposite. (ie MY Space) Part of the reasoning behind this is to get you to feel comfortable, safe and in control when you are anything but. But once you if you feel that way, you will open up and let the “data” flow.

  5. Till

    Together with danah boyds two blog posts this could be something like the start of thinking about social media as “public good” or “public infrastructure” or “utility” (boyd) – something more than just another market. Thanks!

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  9. Wessel van Rensburg

    Great post, but I wonder about one detail.

    Gmail also sells advertising but is generally not considered to be infringing on privacy. It does this by parsing the content of your emails, and serving you contextual ads. Do bear in mind that unlike TV or print, Gmail can not offer reach (general add for one large audience) – the traditional ad sell. But because of the contextual advertising, it does not need to. It is targeted.

    Facebook’s general push of elements of secondary sociality to be effectively globally-public is not about selling advertising first and foremost. They can sell you advertising even if your profile is private. And they do so very successfully already. But like with Gmail – for its advertising to be attractive to advertisers – it has be very targeted. When an advertiser buys ads on Facebook, they don’t buy an audience – they effectively buy individual users.

    My guess is that the push to globally-public is about something else than increasing ad sales.

    It is to be Twitter like, where all is globally public. I’m not sure why Facebook has Twitter envy. But it does, this is ironic, because as the saying goes, everybody has friends (Facebook), but not everybody has something interesting to say (Twitter). It is precisely the private space between friends that gives Facebook its scale. Destroying the space of secondary sociality might cause its downfall as you suggest.

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